Edith Maud Eaton
(Sui Sin Far) (1865-1914)
Contributing Editor: Amy Ling
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
If students are to appreciate the work of Edith Eaton fully, they must
be given its historical and social context, namely the reception of Chinese
by dominant Americans before and during her period. Students should know
that though the Chinese were never enslaved in this country, as were Africans,
they were brought here in large numbers as indentured laborers or coolies.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was only repealed in 1943 and naturalized citizenship
for Asians was permitted in 1954, long after African-Americans and American
Indians were recognized as American citizens. Initially attracted to California
by the discovery of gold in the mid-nineteenth century, by the l860s thousands
of Chinese laborers were enticed here to construct the mountainous western
section of the transcontinental railroad. Almost from the beginning, prejudice
against them was strong. They were regarded as an alien race with peculiar
customs and habits that made them unassimilable in a nation that wanted
to remain white; and their hard-working, frugal ways, their willingness
to work for lower wages than whites, rendered them an economic threat and
thus targets of racial violence.
Into this environment, Edith Eaton came as a small child from England,
living first in Hudson City, New York, and later settling in Montreal.
Though her writing career began on the Montreal newspaper, The Star,
she was to make her mark in the United States (she lived most of her adult
life in Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco), writing articles and short
stories using the Chinese pseudonym Sui Sin Far.
Edith Eaton's autobiographical essay and her stories, of which "In
the Land of the Free" is an example, show what it was to be a Chinese
woman in the white man's world. Though Eaton herself was only one-half
Chinese (and one-half English), she was devoted to her mother and to the
cause of counteracting the hatred and prejudice against her mother's people
that was so pervasive during her own formative years. She took the Chinese
name of a flower popular among the Chinese (Sui Sin Far means narcissus)
and courageously asserted her Chinese heritage, even though this background
was not evident on her face.
In "Leaves" she describes through personal anecdotes chronologically
arranged, her growing awareness of her own ethnic identity, her sensitivity
to the curiosity and hostility of others, the difficulty of the Eurasian's
position, and the development of her racial pride. The other theme apparent
in "Leaves," and in many of her short stories, is Eaton's defense
of the independent woman. The biographical fact that Eaton herself never
married and the intimate details of this woman's journal entries would
indicate that she is telling her own story, but she refrained from identifying
herself out of a delicate sense of modesty.
"In the Land of the Free" is typical of Edith Eaton's short
fiction. Her themes are of utmost importance: racial insensitivity, the
human costs of bureaucratic and discriminatory laws, the humanity of the
Chinese. The creation of rounded characters is a secondary concern. Lae
Choo is little more than maternity personified, maternity victimized by
racial prejudice. But the very portrayal of a Chinese woman in the maternal
role--loving, anxious, frantic, self-sacrificing--was itself a novelty
and a contribution, for the popular conception of the Chinese woman, whose
numbers were few in nineteenth-century America, was that of a sing-song
girl, prostitute, or inmate of an opium den. In Lae Choo, Eaton gives the
reading public a naive, trusting woman whose entire life is devoted to
the small child that the law of "this land of the free" manages
to keep away from her for nearly one year. By the end of the story, the
irony of the title becomes forcefully apparent.
Edith Eaton hoped to effect a change by means of her pen, to be the
pioneer in bridging the Occident and the Orient, but the last article she
published, less than a year before her death on April 7, 1914, was still
a plea for the acceptance of working-class Chinese in America. She asserts
that many former laundrymen become college graduates and influential people,
that half the Chinese children in the Sunday School class she visited in
San Francisco wore American clothes, while in eastern public schools, all
the children wore American clothes. The pathetically shallow arguments
she makes reflect not her thinking but that of the opposition. At the time
of her death, the newspapers were full of stories about keeping Asian children
out of public schools in reaction to the murder of a white woman by her
Chinese "houseboy," and the Chinese Exclusion Act had been extended
Anonymous. Marion, the Story of an Artist's Model. By Herself and
the Author of Me. New York: Watt, 1916. Biography of Sara Eaton Bosse
by Winnifred Eaton. Includes anecdotes of the Eaton family life with Edith
referred to as Ada.
Anonymous. Me, a Book of Remembrance. New York: Century, 1915.
Winnifred Eaton's autobiography.
Sui Sin Far. (Pseud. of Edith Maud Eaton.) "Leaves from the Mental
Portfolio of an Eurasian." Independent 66 (January 21, 1909):
--. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Edited with introductions
by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana: University of Illinois
Watanna, Onoto. (Pseud. of Winnifred Eaton.) A Japanese Nightingale.
New York: Harper, 1901.
White-Parks, Annette. Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary
Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.